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Connacht joy, the Galway and Kerry additions and learning from 2018 naivety

Enda Smith captains Roscommon as they start out in the Super 8s today.

Roscommon captain Enda Smith lifts the Nestor Cup.
Roscommon captain Enda Smith lifts the Nestor Cup.
Image: Tommy Grealy/INPHO

BEFORE HE GOT his hands on the Nestor Cup, watched Roscommon get wrapped up in a celebratory midsummer mood and started thinking of the Super 8s, Enda Smith was concerned.

His 2019 championship journey was nearly derailed before it had a chance to take off.

“Couple of weeks before playing Leitrim, we’d a challenge game and I cracked a bone in my hand. Really innocuous incident.

“Initially it was quite sore. I got an x-ray on the Tuesday night and it was fine. I was panicking a bit, I knew it wasn’t right myself, it was really sore.

“On the Friday I went for an MRI scan and it showed it was cracked, ruled me out of the Leitrim game completely.  I was panicking now to be honest, it’s not nice to miss out. After the Leitrim game it was 13 days to Mayo, I was wondering would I be ready or not.

“But thankfully the week of the Mayo game, maybe we trained the Tuesday or Wednesday, I trained full contact and felt confident in it to give it a go.”

After that spell of uncertainty over his availability, he entered the game in Castlebar. Roscommon were testing Mayo, banging in a couple of early goals. Smith chipped in with a valuable point and by the final whistle a losing run that had stretched back to 1985 ended.

Since then Roscommon have continued to soar. Two years ago Smith was a towering presence as they defeated Galway in Salthill. When they replicated that Connacht final triumph last month, he had the added personal satisfaction of being captain, the first Boyle man to achieve that honour in victorious fashion.

If the outbreaking of joy may have seemed curious from the outside given the county were not halting a long fallow period, it didn’t strike Smith as out of character.

“To be honest I wasn’t surprised. You see even after beating Mayo in a semi-final, you’ve seen what that meant. I knew that going into the Connacht final this year, Roscommon fans were probably a bit more confident going in. There was real expectation, definitely from within the county.

“Even the pitch invasion beforehand, it’s just what you get from Roscommon fans. They’re similar I think to Limerick and Wexford, just really love their sport. On the way home both sides of the road were full, bonfires out, it was great for the lads to go back to Pearses.

“Then even every village and town we passed through on the way home, there was bonfires out. We had it two years ago and you’re thinking they won’t do it this year. But Roscommon, we’re normally very cyclical when we win our Connacht titles.

“Now we’ve done two in three. When we got back to Roscommon town then, there was just as much people there as there was two years ago. It was brilliant to see. We can’t get enough of them kind of days.”

If the feeling was similar to 2017, a couple of the chief architects had changed. Anthony Cunningham, with his Galway hurling experience – allied to stints in Roscommon and Westmeath club football – is now guiding them.

“I’ll tell you the first time I met Anthony was last year at a work event. We were both at the same event and we just walked by each other. I work for a software company, Cora Systems in Carrick, and he works as an engineer in Athlone IT.

Anthony Cunningham Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“You know the way you’d kind of know faces, we just stopped and chatted and made that mutual connection. That was literally it, a chat for ten minutes. Never would have seen him at club level, never would have came across him with Brigid’s. We were still in championship, it was after the Connacht final. Then he’s announced in November as manager. It’s funny how it worked out.

“I knew he’d a good football record. When he’s announced you’re chatting to lads who’ve had him, who know him, you’re finding out what he’s like and all the vibe was he’s very good, he’ll have you ready for championship, he’ll work you hard and get the very best out of lads.

“When you’re hearing that, it’s good, it’s positive. But then you have to make an opinion of him yourself and the first opinion obviously was positive and we’re getting on good so far.”

There’s been addition on the pitch as well in Conor Cox, the Listowel native with the Loughglynn background.

“The first night we met each other was that Sigerson All-Stars, we were both up for one that year. Just small talk, just general stuff. At the time I didn’t know but a couple of years later, I found out his Dad was from Roscommon.

“I knew he was a good fella. He’s been a huge addition and in fairness he’s fit seamlessly into the group. He’s a real lad, good craic, good fun to be around.

“You see his emotions after games, just what it means to him, it’s huge. It’s great to have him on board, he’s been a huge addition to us. People are on about the frees he’s hitting, the last one outside of the foot, he’s done that in the league, he’s doing that in training. He has that, he’s one of the sweetest ball strikers I’ve seen.”

Conor Cox Conor Cox impressed for Roscommon against Galway. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The presences have helped Roscommon cope with the loss of key players due to study commitments and travel plans.

“This year we lost probably our best defender with the last few years, Niall McInerney, and our best forward the last few years in Ciaran Murtagh. So they’re two huge losses. It’s like Monaghan taking Conor McManus and Drew Wylie out of their team.

“So to contend with that and a management switch was quite big but in fairness lads have bought in. A lot of lads have kicked on, lads who’ve been on the fringes like Conor Hussey and that, have really put their hand up to be there now.

“Obviously in a selfish point of view, you’d say to stay around and give us a few years and see how it goes. But not at all, you can’t begrudge Ciaran or Niall and then last year Sean Mullooly went away as well. It’s their lives and they’re dead right sure. If they’ve the opportunity to travel, I’d be all for it.”

They’ll open the doors of their Dr Hyde Park home today to Tyrone, still smarting from the beating they took against them last summer. Smith is 24 now, in his seventh year in the Roscommon senior setup and captain of a squad that want to make a national mark.

“We were conscious how we represented ourselves last year wasn’t really where we wanted to be. To get back to this year was always the main goal and trying to perform better.

“Last year was a wake up call. We probably went in a bit naive and thought going into Croke Park, we’re not going to change for anyone, we’re going to stick to what we know and play football.

“It just doesn’t work like that I’m afraid, the way the football is gone. Teams are not going to give you those chances, especially Tyrone of all teams. Player wise we’ve had nearly a year to reflect on it now and I think we’re better set going into this year now.”

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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